In the 1960s they talked about Vietnam. Should a writer "compromise" his work with politics, or offer some sort of escape from horror?During the 1970s they discussed women; how they'd been misunderstood and misread.
Now, in the late 1980s, the topic is "Writers and the Academy." Do university writing programs help or hinder literature in America?
There were 10 American universities with creative writing programs in 1965. Now there are more than 200. Thumb through any "Who's Who in Writing" and you'll find that 90 percent of today's pertinent poets work for universities.
And this state of affairs is producing a backlash.
The largest grenade was lobbed by Greg Kuzma in the September 1986 issue of Poetry (Chicago). The main blast of his essay, "The Catastrophe of Creative Writing," took out Martha Collins - whom Kuzma saw as a victim of "workshop disease." But there was also enough shrapnel to knock down John Ashbery, Mark Strand, Donald Justice and half-a-dozen others who Kuzma felt wrote "poems about nothing much at all except maybe the problem of their own existence."
Ted Solotaroff, poetry editor at Harper & Row, got offanother volley in an essay entitled "The Literary Campus and the Person of Letters."
Others have followed. As recently as last Friday, Hank Lazer was lambasting the "MFA Industry" (the plethora of Master of Fine Arts degrees) in an article in The Nation.
Needless to say, all this sniping has made many "university poets" testy.
Marvin Bell, who teaches in the University of Iowa Writers Workshop took a moment during the Color Country Writers Conference in Cedar City to return fire.
"Sure there are pros and cons to being a poet at a university," says Bell. "There are probably pros and cons to being a poet at a fire department. I think the people who complain assume writers at universities are all alike and that we take our marching orders from the administration.
"No way. The program I teach in is informal to the point of chaos. And look at the different writers who've taught there: Rita Dove, James Tate, Philip Levine. All unique.
"And as for that business about university writers being insulated from life, that's crazy. We have children who get ill, we have our problems, we suffer. The university doesn't isolate you from daily life. What isolates you from daily life is being a writer."
Finding proper perspective in this ongoing crossfire is tricky, if not impossible. But a few questions can be tossed out. These three to begin with:
1. What is it about the academy that attracts so many good writers?
2. What are the major objections raised by outsiders and disenchanted university writers?
3. And how has all of this affected the state of American letters?
It would take 100 pages to do justice to those questions. But a few doors can be opened. For instance, what pulls poets and prose writers into the academy in the first place?
Bell mentions the big reason: stability.
"Everyone has to make a living," he says. "The academy is the one place that has made room for writers. If writers didn't have the academy, they'd have to rely on another form of patronage."
William Stafford, who teaches at Lewis and Clark College in Oregon, chips in a couple of other thoughts.
"The university is a clean, well-lighted place," says Stafford. "It's a way to do `easy time.' Writers are always near major libraries there, and they are in a community of people who tend to be open for discussions and dialogue. Those are powerful things for a writer. You find people who are trying to see the happy side of prospects. The academy has a liberating effect. To people who say `university types live in ivory towers; they don't know what's going on,' I say `give it a try. See if that's really true.' "
Given, then, that the university can be a nice haven for writer, the university has to find a way to justify having the writer on campus. So the writer becomes a teacher of writing. And those creative writing classes are where Kuzma, Solotaroff, Robert Bly and dozens of others feel a real "disservice to literature" is being performed.
That is where the dreaded "workshop poem" and "workshop story" are produced.
Kuzma calls "workshop poetry" the kind of writing that "lacks urgency," that seems washed out, pastel, that takes no risks and has nothing to say. Yet the poems are often technically and stylistically sound. And such poems, says Kuzma, flow out of universities by the thousands.
Kenneth Brewer, who teaches at Utah State University and has a degree in creative writing, agrees. And every year he grows more disillusioned with creative writing programs.
"You can't teach experience and you can't teach genius," says Brewer, "but writers at universities can teach technique. So we're seeing all these poems without souls; poems about peeling oranges and things; poems written on command, not out of necessity."
And the reason for it, says poet Robert Bly, is young poets have no way to rebel against the older generation of poets, because those poets are their teachers and will grade their work.
In Solotaroff's words, "If the graduate writing program is at its best a sanctuary and a staging area, it tends more often to have the torpor of a boondoggle and the cynicism of a scam."
The response to such criticism is varied. Marvin Bell, for instance, denies there are such things as "workshop poems."
"What people call `workshop poetry' is basically poetry written by 20-year-olds," he says. "If we taught poetry to eighth graders, people would start talking about the `junior high poem.' "
Locally, there's some defensiveness as well. Though the University of Utah Creative Writing Program has been through a tough couple of years - heated controversy over who and who has not earned degrees, cliques and factions within the program and a kind of "hot potato" approach to who should run the department - the school has maintained its credibility as the top creative writing program in the interior West.
Katharine Coles is completing her doctorate at the U. Currently she is the assistant literary coordinator for the Utah Arts Council.
"The individual, not the school, is ultimately responsible for art," she says. "I get tired of people blaming the school when the writers themselves are at fault. The `workshop poem' is usually the work of a mediocre poet who's been taught certain techniques, a poet who won't go on. The true writers will eventually do their work in an individual way. The creative writing program is just a short cut. If there's a problem, it's in the fact creative writing programs accept people who really don't have a writing vocation. And those people often end up bitter and betrayed.
"But, as a whole, I can't state too strongly how important writing programs are to serious writers."
In the end, the phenomenon of creative writing programs is so fresh it's hard to assess their affect on American literature. Will it become a bit top-lofty? Divorced of the concerns of the everyday men and women that have made the works of, say, John Steinbeck and Robert Penn Warren immortal?
"It's true that the university is a limited part of the world," says Stafford. "You don't get daily stimulation and you tend to forget how the world works. You start believing that what is reasonable will actually happen. The everyday world has bumps in it that do educate you in ways the academy never can."
Would Stafford re-live his life to avoid life at a university?
"My son Kim just left the academy," he says. "Kim's now going to Alaska, he's writing a book, he's traveling; and I ask myself `would that have been the thing I should have done?' I don't think so. This is the route I chose, I feel it's a good one, and I'll stand by it."
So, the old notion of "time telling" applies to the university the writer as well. If - as Coles and Bell believe - those budding university poets do eventually find their proper topics, voices and passions, and have been able to use the academy as a help, all those heated arguments voiced at the beginning of this piece will quickly fade.